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Chapter XXVI


WHEN Lennard got out of the train at St Pancras that evening, he found such a sight as until a day or so ago no Londoner had ever dreamed of. But terrible as the happenings were, they were not quite terrible enough to stop the issue of the evening newspapers.

As the train slowed down along the platform, boys were running along it yelling:

"Bombardment of London from the air — dome of St Paul's smashed by a shell — Guildhall, Mansion House, and Bank of England in ruins — orful scenes in the streets. Paper, Sir?"

He got out of the carriage and grabbed the first newspaper that was thrust into his hand, gave the boy sixpence for it, and hurried away towards the entrance. He found a few cab-men outside the station; he hailed one of the drivers, got in, and said:

"Downing Street — quick. There's a sovereign; there'll be another for you when I get there."

"It's a mighty risky job, guv'nor, these times, driving a keb through London streets. Still, one's got to live, I suppose. 'Old up there — my Gawd, that's another of those bombs! You just got out of there in time, sir."

Even as though it had been timed, as it might well have been, a torpedo dropped from a ghostly shape drifting slowly across the grey November clouds. Then there came a terrific shock. Every pane in the vast roof and in the St Pancras Hotel shivered to the dust. The engine which had drawn Lennard's train blew up like one huge shell, and the carriages behind it fell into splinters.

If that shell had only dropped three minutes sooner the end of the World war of 1910 would have been very different to what it was; for, as Lennard learned afterwards, of all the porters, officials and passengers, who had the misfortune to be in the great station at that moment, only half a hundred cripples, maimed for life, escaped.

"I wonder whether that was meant for me," said Lennard as the frightened horse sprang away at a half gallop. "If that's the case John Castellan knows rather more than he ought to do, and, good Lord, if he knows that, he must know where Auriole is, and what's to stop him taking one of those infernal things of his up to Whernside, wrecking the house and the observatory, and taking her off with him to the uttermost ends of the earth if he likes?

"There must be something in it or that shell would not have dropped just after I got outside the station. They watched the train come in, and they knew I was in it — they must have known.

"What a ghastly catastrophe it would be if they got on to that scheme of ours at the pit. Fancy one of those aërial torpedoes of his dropping down the bore of the cannon a few minutes before the right time! It would mean everything lost, and nothing gained, not even for him.

"Ah, good man Erskine," he went on, as he opened the paper, and read that every cruiser, battleship and transport that had forced the entrance to the Thames and Medway had been sunk. "That will be a bit of a check for them, anyhow. Yes, yes, that's very good. Garrison Fort, Chatham and Tilbury, of course, destroyed from the air, but not a ship nor a man left to go and take possession of them."

While he was reading his paper, and muttering thus to himself, the cab was tearing at the horse's best speed down Gray's Inn Road. It took a sudden swing to the right into Holborn, ran along New Oxford Street, and turned down Charing Cross Road, the horse going at a full gallop the whole time.

Happily it was a good horse, or the fate of the world might have been different. There was no rule of the road now, and no rules against furious driving. London was panic-stricken, as it might well be. As far as Lennard could judge the aerial torpedoes were being dropped mostly in the neighbourhood of Regent Street and Piccadilly, and about Grosvenor Place and Park Lane. He half expected to find Parliament Street and Westminster in ruins, but for some mysterious reason they had been spared.

The great City was blazing in twenty places, and scarcely a minute passed without the crash of an explosion and the roar of flame that followed it, but a magic circle seemed to have been drawn round Westminster. There nothing was touched, and yet the wharves on the other side of the river, and the great manufactories behind them, were blazing and vomiting clouds of flame and smoke towards the clouds as though the earth had been split open beneath them and the internal fires themselves let loose.

When the cabman pulled up his sweating and panting horse at the door of Number 2 Downing Street, Lennard got out and said to the cabman:

"You did that very well, considering the general state of things. I don't know whether you'll live to enjoy it or not, but there's a five-pound note for you, and if you'll take my advice you will get your wife and family, if you have one, into that cab, and drive right out into the country. It strikes me London's going to be a very good place to stop away from for the next two or three days."

"Thank 'ee, sir," said the cabman, as he gathered up the five-pound note and tucked it down inside his collar. "I don't know who you are, but it's very kind of you; and as you seem to know something, I'll do as you say. What with these devil-ships a-flyin' about the skies, and dropping thunderbolts on us from the clouds, and furreners a-comin' up the Thames as I've heard, London ain't 'ealthy enough for me, nor the missus and the kids, and thanks for your kindness, sir, we're movin' to-night, keb an' all.

"Oh, my Gawd, there's another! 'Otel Cecil and Savoy this time, if I've got my bearin's right. Well, there's one thing, t'ain't on'y the pore what's sufferin' this time; there'll be a lot of rich people dead afore mornin'. A pal of mine told me just now that Park Lane was burnin' from end t' end. Good-evenin', sir, and thenk you."

As the cab drove away Lennard stood for a few moments on the pavement, watching two columns of flame soaring up from the side of the Strand. Perhaps the most dreadful effects produced by the aerial torpedoes were those which resulted from the breaking of the gas mains and the destruction of the electric conduits. Save for the bale-fires of ruin and destruction, half London was in darkness. Miles of streets under which the gas mains were laid blew up with almost volcanic force. The electric mains were severed, and all the contents dislocated, and if ever London deserved the name which James Thompson gave it when he called it "The City of Dreadful Night," it deserved it on that evening of the 17th of November 1909.

Lennard was received in the Prime Minister's room by Mr Chamberlain, Lord Whittinghame, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Lord Milner and General Lord Kitchener.

It was perhaps the strangest meeting that had ever taken place in that room, not even saving the historic meeting of 1886. There was very little talking. Even in the House of Commons the flood of talk had ebbed away in such a fashion that it made it possible for the nation's business to be got through at a wonderful speed. The fact of the matter was that the guns were talking — talking within earshot of Palace Yard itself, and so men had come to choose their words and make them few.

After the introductions had been made the man who really held the fate of the world in his hands took a long envelope out of the breast-pocket of his coat, and proceeded to explain, somewhat as a schoolmaster might explain to his class, the doom which would overwhelm humanity on the 12th May 1910.

He was listened to in absolute silence, because his hearers were men who had good reason for believing that silence is often worth a good deal more than speech. When he had finished the rustle of his papers as he handed them to the Prime Minister was distinctly audible in the solemn silence. The Prime Minister folded them up, and said:

"There is no necessity for us to go into the figures again. I think we are prepared to take them on the strength of your reputation, Mr Lennard.

"We have asked you here to-night as an adviser, as a man who in more ways than one sees farther than we can. Now, what is your advice? You are aware, I presume, that the German Emperor, the Czar of Russia and the French President landed at Dover this morning, and have issued an ultimatum from Canterbury, calling upon us to surrender London, and discuss terms of peace in the interests of humanity. Now, you occupy a unique point of view. You have told us in your letters that unless a miracle happens the human race will not survive midnight of the 12th of May next. We believe that you are right, and now, perhaps, you will be good enough to let us have your opinions as to what should be done in the immediate present."

"My opinion is, sir, that for at least forty days you must fight, no matter how great the odds may appear to be. Every ditch and hedgerow, every road and lane, every hill and copse must be defended. If London falls, England falls, and with it the Empire."

"But how are we to do it?" exclaimed Lord Kitchener. "With these infernal airships flying about above it, and dropping young earthquakes from the clouds? There are no braver men on earth than ours, but it isn't human nature to keep steady under that kind of punishment. Look what they've done already in London! What is there to prevent them, for instance, from dropping a shell through the roof of this house, and blowing the lot of us to eternity in little pieces? It's not the slightest use trying to shoot back at them. You remember what happened to poor Beresford and the rest of his fleet in Dover Harbour. If you can't hit back, you can't fight."

"That certainly appears to be perfectly reasonable," said Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. "Personally, I must confess, although with the greatest reluctance, that considering the enormous advantage possessed by the enemy in this combination of submarine and flying machine, we have no other alternative but to surrender at discretion. It is a pitiful thing to say I am well aware, but we are fighting forces which would never have been called into being in any other war. I agree with Lord Kitchener that you cannot fight an enemy if you cannot hit him back. I am afraid there is no other alternative."

"No," added Lord Whittinghame, "I am afraid there is not. By to-morrow morning there will be three millions of men on British soil, and we haven't a million to put against them — to say nothing of these horrible airships: but, Mr Lennard, if the world is only going to live about six months or so, what is the use of conquering the British Empire? Surely there must be another alternative."

"Yes, my lord," replied Lennard, "there is another. I've no doubt your lordship has one of your motors within call. Let us go down to Canterbury, yourself, Lord Kitchener and myself, and I will see if I can't convince the German Emperor that in trying to conquer Britain he is only stabbing the waters. If I only had him at Whernside, I would convince him in five minutes."

"Then we'd better get hold of him and take him there," said Lord Kitchener. "But I'm ready for the Canterbury journey."

"And so am I," said Lord Whittinghame, "and the sooner we're off the better. I've got a new Napier here that's good for seventy-five miles an hour, so we'd better be off."

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